The Object Lesson
Reviewed by Myron Meisel
Kirk Douglas Theatre
Through October 4
The Object Lesson, created and enacted by Geoff Sobelle, is a determinedly odd amalgam of performance art and clowning, an extended existential joke deploying self-aware empty gestures, obsessive materialism and well-established gags consciously stranded in the context of a litter-strewn vacuum. And yes, a desire to be loved. It’s as if a contemporary Emmett Kelly did an evening-long solo show, capped by the bottomless box trick.
I don’t come to the show with an entirely objective view. The “scenic installation design” by David Neumann consists of filling the entire Kirk Douglas auditorium with paper boxes loaded with detritus, wizened knick-knacks, decades-old love letters, and serendipitous suggestive instructions to audience members, as well as the obligatory vinyl and turntables. It looks like a hoarder’s cache writ epic large, and not un-reminiscent of my own house, though of course, like everyone else so situated, I believe I manage to be less conspicuous, less disorganized and far more purposeful. After all, I won’t even admit to being a collector, let alone a hoarder, I just enjoy listening to the sounds on my north of 75,000 records and CDs.
The audience sits amidst the clutter (a word I abhor as dismissive of the significance of “stuff,” itself a reductive misnomer) as well as on top of it. There have been complaints about difficulties seeing and hearing the show from various vantage perches: I suggest either seeking higher ground or be prepared to move about, something the audience instinctively learns to accomplish as the happening proceeds.
At first, Sobelle explores many impressive insights about the phenomenon of not being able to let go, whether of the past, of emotions, or most concretely, of things. He also indulges in set pieces that are rather common variations within the performance art world, involving such tropes as taped playbacks and unrehearsed audience participation in rigorously prescribed ritualistic routines, John Cage without chance. It isn’t so much dull as it is insistent that attendees enter and share its own zone of affectless absorption that deliberately feints at contemplation.
Nevertheless, there are moments of metaphysical sublimity seeded throughout all of the conceptual clutter, not least a divine tap dance on ice skates to the chestnut ditty “All I Do the Whole Day Through (Is Dream of You),” a physical karaoke punctuated by a delightfully corny climax of packing peanuts as artificial snowfall (a tribute to the pleasures of accumulating treasures of trash). The song is perhaps most famous from the classic movie Singin’ in the Rain, to which Sobelle’s skate is a sidelong homage, made more hip by using instead Al Bowlly’s 1934 croony version with the Ray Noble Orchestra. I sang along: don’t have all those records for nothing.
The Object Lesson, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Saturday 2 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 6:30 p.m.; Sun. Oct. 4, 1 p.m. only; through October 4. (213) 628-2772, CenterTheatreGroup.org. Running time: one hour, 30 minutes. (Early arrival strongly advised to rummage through the immersive clutter.)